NEWS- Don't do it: Abstaining from 'no-sex' ed
In the world of local nonprofits, receiving a federal grant of more than $645,000 might be big news– news most organizations would celebrate, boast about, publicize. But while the Pregnancy Centers of Central Virginia (formerly known as the Pregnancy Center of Charlottesville) got just such a grant in October, they're none too eager to spread the good news. They also have no desire to publicize their attempts to offer area public school students instruction on remaining chaste until marriage.
"How did you find out about this?" asked a spokesperson at the West Main Street office of the Pro Life counseling center. "We haven't sent out any press releases." Though she promised to forward a reporter's inquiry to Pregnancy Centers leadership, the Hook received no return calls.
According to their grant application on file at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., the Centers hope to offer a program called "Why kNOw" to 30,000 students in the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, which includes Charlottesville and Albemarle as well as Greene, Nelson, Fluvanna, Orange, Madison, Louisa and Culpeper counties. The Pregnancy Centers' $645,642 grant is just a fraction of the $37 million the Department has distributed through its Community Based Abstinence Education program. Like all abstinence-only programs, the Why kNOw course– for students in grades six through 10– promotes no sex as the best, if not only, alternative before marriage.
According to the Why kNOw website, whyknow.org, the program also aims to "train teens in the areas of literacy, communication, leadership, conflict resolution, and decision-making," and to "empower teens to develop their positive attributes, enabling them to be self-confident and independent thinkers." Supporters point to a host of ills that early sexual activity can breed (besides children, of course), sexually transmitted diseases and poverty among them.
Critics, however, say abstinence-only-until-marriage content is naive, often uses fear-mongering to scare teens out of sexual relationships, and completely neglects to address the needs of homosexual students, who by default are taught they should never have sex– until they can switch gender preferences and enter a legally recognized marriage.
Why kNOw is "absolutely fear-based in that it basically tells you that if you have sex outside of marriage, horrible things are going to happen to you, and you are going to have a horrible life," says Martha Kempner, vice president of the D.C.-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The Why kNOw program in particular "puts all the responsibility on the girl," Kempner says. "The idea here is that it is the females' responsibility to make sure they don't have sex because boys want it all the time and you, as a girl who doesn't really want it, are in a better position to make sure it doesn't happen."
Kempner says her organization is spending time reviewing all such abstinence curricula, and is working to disseminate what it considers accurate medical information.
According to a press release from Planned Parenthood of the Blue Ridge, Why kNOw "contains major errors and distortions." The release cites a report from the 2004 US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform titled, "The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs" which Planned Parenthood says specifically criticizes Why kNOw for "erroneous information about basic scientific facts, understating condom effectiveness, and presenting gender stereotypes as scientific fact."
Even some who agree for religious reasons that teens should remain abstinent until marriage say that failing to give students balanced information can be dangerous since research shows that more than 60 percent of teens will have sex by the time they are seniors in high school.
"Our program is fact-based and faith-based," says Cindy Ruhl, who heads a sex education program for middle and high school students at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rugby Road every other year. The instructors tell students they want them to remain abstinent until marriage, but Ruhl says instructors also must take part in day-long medically based training.
The program, she says, "also talks about anatomy and more factual stuff. Homosexuality is addressed: there is a true false quiz on homosexuality, and we go over the answers. It allows them to discover for themselves myths that are out there, assumptions that are made that are not correct, and gives the conversation an opportunity to happen."
In its grant application, the Pregnancy Centers say they have strong relationships with six of the nine "target" school districts, though they don't specify which six. It seems unlikely that students in Charlottesville and Albemarle will be taking the five-day Why kNOw course anytime soon. Mary Sullivan, a UVA-based programmer who serves as the Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention coordinator for Charlottesville and Albemarle schools, says the Pregnancy Centers are not one of the approved "Family Life presenters" for either district.
In fact, the Pregnancy Centers have not contacted the city to ask to present the program, says Lee Davis, vocational planner for Charlottesville, who is handling Family Life planning until the school system hires a Health and Family Life coordinator.
Messages left with Albemarle County school administration were not returned by press time.
Sullivan says that while she doesn't think Why kNOw will make it into the local schools, she remains worried. "My biggest concern is that we're spending valuable time that's already limited on education that's been shown to not be effective in preventing STDs in teens," she says.
But despite her questions about abstinence-only programs, in the end, she points out, most people have the same goal for teens– just different views on how to reach that goal.
"This is not an argument about whether teenagers should be having sex," she says. "All of us can agree that to optimize physical and mental health, teenagers should postpone sexual activity. But denying them access to accurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections is irresponsbile in light of how many teens are sexually active."
Thanks to a large federal grant, will local students get abstinence only until marriage education from the Pregnancy Centers of Central Virginia?
PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART